American liberalism is no longer very liberal. It does not promote basic freedoms, like the freedom to lecture on a college campus. And it does not, Shelby Steele explains, have an economic agenda that might help America’s less fortunate to improve their lives. It has, in Steele's words, exhausted itself. It has no agenda beyond moral posturing.
American liberalism has become infested with what is now called virtue signaling. People join the cause because it appears to offer them a moral identity, moral legitimacy. Steel argues that they really want to shield themselves from the shame of being labeled a bigot.
One likes to think that Steele is right to say that this brand of illiberal liberalism has exhausted itself, that it is a shell of its former glory. It was sufficiently powerful to con people into voting for Barack Obama, but could not elect Hillary Clinton.
One reason, Steele suggests. is that today’s so-called liberals do not respect themselves. It’s the price of virtue signaling. They believe that they are so virtuous and that their cause is so just and their enemies so evil that they can do anything they want to advance it. Living in a cosmic narrative, a battle between absolute good and absolute evil... anything goes.
Steele compares the recent political protest against the Trump presidency to the early civil rights protests. He emphasizes the fact that those who marched in the 1950s and 1960s respected themselves.
In his words:
Unlike the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, when protesters wore their Sunday best and carried themselves with heroic dignity, today’s liberal marches are marked by incoherence and downright lunacy—hats designed to evoke sexual organs, poems that scream in anger yet have no point to make, and an hysterical anti-Americanism.
Sad to say it, but wearing a pussy hat is not a sign of self-respect. Resorting to acts of violence against bearers of unpopular ideas does not bespeak true liberalism.
The Vietnam War ushered in an era of American guilt. The guilt covered up the shame of a failed war. I made this version of the argument myself over two decades ago in my book, Saving Face: America and the Politics of Shame.
It took time for the failure of Vietnam to coalesce around white guilt. Of course, liberals wanted to blame white males, especially white conservative males. The military was a male institution and it was largely, even in the time of Vietnam, a white institution.
Since the policy had been initiated by John Kennedy and had been pursued by Kennedy’s vice president and his cabinet, it was necessary to shift the blame on to anyone but the elite guardian class called the best and the brightest. The dirty secret about Vietnam is that it was initiated and conducted by liberals. The Kennedy-Johnson administration escalated it. The Nixon administration de-escalated it. Most left-thinking young people at the time did everything in their power to avoid the fight.
Liberalism offered a new moral identity. To many it seemed preferable to identifying as an American. Why identify with the losing team when you can join those who occupy the moral high ground. Why identify with a losing fight when you can engage in a new fight for America’s hearts and minds.
In Steele’s words:
This liberalism came into being not as an ideology but as an identity. It offered Americans moral esteem against the specter of American shame. This made for a liberalism devoted to the idea of American shamefulness. Without an ugly America to loathe, there is no automatic esteem to receive. Thus liberalism’s unrelenting current of anti-Americanism.
Rather than fight a foreign war against a real enemy, American liberals chose to fight a domestic war against prejudice. They were saying that they were too good and too virtuous to fight a war. They were: “too proud to fight.” They did not win any territory, but they did occupy the moral high ground. They insisted that their moral authority was more valid than the political or military or business authority of those who were in the real world building and producing.
Steele notes well that with guilt brings along a narrative. We are, as I have often noted, still living within this narrative:
America, since the ’60s, has lived through what might be called an age of white guilt. We may still be in this age, but the Trump election suggests an exhaustion with the idea of white guilt, and with the drama of culpability, innocence and correctness in which it mires us.
Guilt for having transgressed followed by penance leads to more sins. We become mired in the narrative because it does not show us any way out.
America was not merely stigmatized as racist. People accepted the guilt of racism because it was better than thinking of themselves as losers, as having lost a war to the Vietcong and the Vietminh. They could proclaim their moral authority to be a higher authority, one that shows the way to Heaven and thus can be used to produce the Heavenly City on earth:
When America became stigmatized in the ’60s as racist, sexist and militaristic, it wanted moral authority above all else. Subsequently the American left reconstituted itself as the keeper of America’s moral legitimacy.
The effort to reconstitute the nation as a kingdom of justice—following the template laid down by a John Rawls— evaded all of the real problems that minority communities face. Remove all of the world’s bigotry and you can engage in endless moral preening, but you have still not created any wealth or any new jobs.
Bigotry exists, but it is far down on the list of problems that minorities now face. I grew up black in segregated America, where it was hard to find an open door. It’s harder now for young blacks to find a closed one.
The lives of minority Americans are being sacrificed to the gods of multiculturalism. Liberalism has failed its constituency because it does not have an agenda for economic and social progress. Strike out against bigotry... is not an agenda.
In Steele’s words:
But American liberalism never acknowledged that it was about white esteem rather than minority accomplishment. Four thousand shootings in Chicago last year, and the mayor announces that his will be a sanctuary city. This is moral esteem over reality; the self-congratulation of idealism.
Out-of-control crime in a sanctuary city—it produces self-congratulatory moral posturing but does nothing for minority lives.